Justin Trudeau has admitted that outrage came easier to him before he became prime minister.
While that kind of candour is often refreshing in politics, his end-of-year news conference in Ottawa could have used some of that old opposition fire — whether it was on Canada-China relations or, even closer to home, on the economic anger currently boiling over in Alberta.
Trudeau was asked several times on Wednesday when or whether he would consider escalating Canada’s response to the detention of Canadians in China. In reply, the prime minister said he’s not the same politician who used to rail against Stephen Harper for the same thing.
“I remember standing in the House and challenging Mr. Harper to pick up the phone and get this Canadian released,” he said.
“I now understand that it’s always a lot more complicated than that.”
Consistency is often a curse in politics, preventing politicians from admitting when they’ve changed their minds or that they’ve learned something on the job. So on that score, Trudeau shone a little light on what power has taught him in the past three years.
Some might even be tempted to call this new demeanour the triumph of reason over passion — his father’s old motto. But for this Trudeau, it is often coming off more as optimism over passion — a stubborn adherence to sunny ways, even when the situation demands an acknowledgement of the storm clouds.
One day after Trudeau’s government unveiled an $1.6-billion aid package for Alberta — which seems to have done little to dispel economic anxiety in that province — the prime minister seemed almost conspicuously silent about the mood there. Nothing in his opening statement was aimed at that audience; he was, in fact, resolutely upbeat and self-congratulatory about how well his government had handled 2018.
Again, all prime ministers put the best face on their own achievements. No one seriously expects any politician, in government or opposition, to say, “Well, things are a bit of a mess,” or even, “Here are the issues on which I resolve to do better next year.”
Still, by sticking to the sunny-ways message track — or the “it’s complicated” reply — Trudeau is missing a chance to show he is in touch with the bad, as well as the good in Canada as it stands here at the close of 2018, headed into the 2019 election year.
Toward the end of his news conference, Trudeau was asked about the pockets of anger in the country right now, and particularly whether national unity was being shaken by the ways in which Quebec and Alberta were at serious odds in pipeline and energy politics. Some ugly things are being said at protests, the prime minister was reminded.
“I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a lot of Canadians right across the country and I can tell you, there are not many Canadians out there who wish ill on other Canadians, regardless of which part of the country they’re from,” he said.
“Canadians know that being there for each other, supporting each other in difficult times and working towards a better future altogether is one of the most successful ways for this country to move forward.”
This was very similar to the answer he gave me earlier this week in a year-end interview when I asked about some of the anger out there in the current body politic. He wrote it off as the mood at the fringe — the language of the “activated” dissenters on social media.
“It doesn’t take long for you to have real conversations with enough Canadians to realize that nobody actually talks like that,” he said to me then.
He may be right — Trudeau, I remember well, was quite confident in 2015 that all the personal, “nice hair” and “just not ready” attacks on him were an inside-the-bubble thing for the chattering classes.
But three years ago, he was also the political leader who cast himself as the best candidate to be the consoler-in-chief (to borrow from one of his then-exemplars, Barack Obama). Trudeau is right — that is obviously easier to do in opposition — and he clearly missed a chance to do it at his year-end news conference on Wednesday.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt